The cult of celebrity says more about us as citizens than it does about the object of our infatuation—fleeting as a mere mortal or timeless as a god that ‘object’ may be. Indeed, celebrity ‘worship’ is possibly as old as the species itself; it may have happened when the first one among us climbed up to some crude, elevated place, stood, and smiled down upon the rest of us, below. What could we do but smile back?
Tom Payne, a teacher at Sherborne School in Dorset, and book reviewer (and former deputy literary editor) at The Daily Telegraph ponders this thing that causes our hearts to beat faster, our eyes to fill with stars, and makes us swell with the desire to lift one among us upon an altar – and then, after a while (shorter for some, longer for others), we consider setting fire to that damned altar – in his book out this month, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity.
Payne’s sense of humor about his species is evident in his replies to PopMatters 20 Questions.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Just now I was watching Mary Poppins with my children. The end had me welling up, but then Dick van Dyke came on and the moment passed. Otherwise, I can’t even tell people about the last episode of Six Feet Under without a little sniffle.
2. The fictional character most like you?
My father told me to be on the outside looking in. If I’ve managed this, then I’d like to high-five Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. And anyway, he begins with some advice his father gave him.
3. The greatest album, ever?
You mean, apart from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? The Essential Leonard Cohen really is essential.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Neither, I’m afraid. Star Wars was one of my first trips to the cinema, and I spent most of the time trying to work out where the pictures were coming from.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Teaching. I guess that makes me a parasite. But there’s nothing like an adolescent’s question to send you off down a path you weren’t expecting to tread.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I see Fame as a comforting book, because it suggests that we’re less dumb or cruel than cultural commentators think.
It will comfort me, too: I’ve always been vain enough to want a little fame, and if this book doesn’t deliver it, then at least I had a chance to write something that makes fame seem less desirable.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
My family first (I married out of my league, and I think my four children are gorgeous); then, some poems.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
J. S. Bach. All those children. And a cantata every week. And a schoolteacher in quiet Leipzig. And then you listen to the stuff, and it’s perfection.
9.The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. It’s my favourite book in the world. It’s a novel set at one moment in the last days of a Parisian apartment block, in which every object has a story to tell. I’d long to end a career on a book that contains that much.
10. Your hidden talents ...?
I became good at the clarinet quickly, and a music award got me into an excellent school. The talent’s hidden because the clarinet’s hidden. I can’t find it anywhere, and we’ve just emptied the garage.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
See question #2. Otherwise, I remember writing a show-offy play at university, called Lois Lane. As a result of this and some other efforts, my friend Erik Gray (now an English prof at Columbia) wrote to me with the word, “Simplify”.
I don’t always follow this advice, but it does remind me to cut things. I keep handing the advice on to students, too. (Do as I say, people, not as I do.)
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
If you go to flea markets a lot, things feel bought, stolen and borrowed all at once. There’s a small gong I bought in Bath; we use it now to tell the children it’s suppertime. And a painting for 50 euros in France. Tom Paine wrote that what we get too cheaply, we esteem too lightly. I completely disagree.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
I just don’t know. Collarless shirts. Desert shoes. There’s a dark blue moleskin suit I’m happy to wear to work. My wife bought me a Bella Freud jumper that says Ginsberg is God on it. It means I can spend evenings explaining that he really is.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Lord Byron. He’s just about my favourite poet—and a great gossip.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I do really want to know how strange the ancient world would have been, and to see a Greek tragedy in Athens, some springtime in the late -5th century.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa treatment, a deux.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Wine. Ideally from Bordeaux, Cabernet/Merlot, aged about ten years, bigger on the tannins.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I do adore New York, but only in 48-hour bursts every few years. I live on the edge of a village in Dorset, England. The moment we moved in I knew that I’d live here forever if I could.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Our new man, David Cameron, is making a lot of cuts as charmingly as possible. But I’d like him to go to the Cabinet War Rooms and read the letter Churchill received from his daughter in 1945. It would remind him that in peacetime, a bigger government is perfectly acceptable.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m a few days away from finishing a verse translation of Ovid’s The Art of Love. It’s the best fun I’ve had with a pen. Vintage is publishing it in the UK on Valentine’s Day. Follow its advice discriminately.